Author Interview: Joy McCullough on Blood Water Paint

Joy McCullough author photoBlood Water Paint is a powerful verse novel about Artemisia Gentileschi. The verse novel follows the start of Artemisia’s career–a path that would eventually lead to her being known as one of the most talented Italian artists of her time–and her historic rape trial. Today I’m very happy to have Joy McCullough on the blog talking a bit more about her debut YA novel.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Joy McCullough (JM): I began as a playwright, studying theater in college and writing and teaching playwriting for many years. I still work as a playwright, but around nine years ago, I began writing middle grade fiction. The shift was partly as a parent, maintaining a career in the theater is very difficult—so many late nights out—and also because I was reading middle grade books aloud for hours a day to my first child, and became really immersed in this mode of storytelling.

I had to write a lot of books before I got my debut deal, though. I wrote five books before I got my first agent. Five books went on submission to editors before my debut deal. Blood Water Paint is the tenth novel I wrote.

So basically, I kept writing, and I kept putting my work out there.

MP: What was the inspiration for Blood Water Paint? What drew you to Artemesia Gentileschi as a subject?

JM: I discovered Artemisia many moons ago as a passing reference in a Margaret Atwood novel. I’d never heard of her, so I went searching. When I learned about Artemisia Gentileschi’s story, I was outraged I hadn’t heard of her before. The transcripts from her rapist’s trial still exist, and I read those with horror over how much hasn’t changed in how we treat women and sexual violence. I wrote the story as a play first, which had a long development process, but when the play was produced in 2015, I started thinking about it as a YA novel when I found myself hoping teenagers would come to see the play.

MP: This novel started life as a play. Did you always know that it would eventually translate into a verse novel? What changes did you make during the adaptation process? What stayed the same?

JM: No, when I first wrote the play, I had no intention of ever writing fiction. I didn’t think I could. And when I began writing fiction, I had no intention of writing in verse. I didn’t think I could. (Do you sense a theme?)

I spent many years working on Blood/Water/Paint, the play. So I knew the story and characters inside and out. I thought. But a play is all dialogue and action. It’s extremely external. The internal is up to the actors. And verse is extremely internal, and usually has minimal dialogue. So that was a huge shift for me. In a way it was wonderful. I thought I knew all there was to know about Artemisia. And suddenly I was looking at the story from inside her head in a very different way than I ever had before. But it was also a challenge, for sure.

One major change is that in the play, we also see Artemisia when she’s older, as a mother teaching her own daughter to paint. Artemisia’s own mother isn’t a part of the play. In the book, I found that motherhood piece by giving Judith and Susanna’s story to her mother.

MP: What part of this story was the most difficult to write? Do you have a favorite piece?

JM: I’ve written this story over so many years (I wrote the play in 2001) that I’m not even sure what was the most difficult to write at this point. Though if it’s difficult to read, it was probably difficult to write. And I think my favorite parts are when Artemisia is drawing strength from Judith and Susanna at various points.

MP: Did you refer to any of Gentileschi’s paintings while writing Blood Water Paint? Do you have a favorite piece by her?

JM: The two paintings that play a major part in the book are Susanna and the Elders, and Judith Slaying Holofernes. I also reference her Madonna and Child. But the book takes place in the earliest years of her career and she went on to paint many more masterpieces. One I particularly love that I didn’t get to feature in the book because she painted it later is her Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.

MP: Can you tell me anything about your next project?

JM: Yes! My next YA with Dutton was recently announced and it centers on the legendary 15th century knight Marguerite de Bressieux. It blends verse and prose, as well as present and past.

I’ve also got a middle grade contemporary novel called A Field Guide to Getting Lost coming from Simon & Schuster in 2020. It’s about two kids whose single parents are dating each other and I’m having a lot of fun with it.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

JM: My first advice is find your people! It can be overwhelming at first if you’re brand new, but if a mega-introvert like me can do it, you can too. Reach out to people at the same stage of the journey as you are. Find them wherever you are most comfortable, be a good friend and critique partner to them, and you will find a support system that will sustain you through the ups and downs!

Also, I’ll say I do my best work when I let go of the anxiety of whether something will fit into the market or other people will like it, etc. When I simply write because I’ve found a story that’s grabbed me by the throat, with no thought to whether it will “succeed”, I’ve not only written the things I’m proudest of, but also as it happens, achieved some conventional measures of success with them.

Thanks again to Joy for for taking the time to answer some of my questions.

You can see more about Joy on her website.

You can also read my review of Blood Water Paint here on the blog.

Blood Water Paint: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I paint the blood.”

cover art for Blood Water Paint by Joy McCulloughRome, 1610: Artemisia Gentileschi had limited options when her mother died at twelve. She could join a convent or she could work in her father’s studio grinding paint, preparing canvases, and modeling as needed.

She chose art.

Now, at seventeen, Artemisia is a key factor to the success of her father’s studio–not that anyone knows it since she can’t sign her name to her art. Instead Artemisia works in secret while her father takes the credit.

Artemisia dreams of improving her craft, stepping out of her father’s shadow, and painting heroic figures like Susanna and Judith the way they were meant to be seen–not as titillating figures colored by the male gaze.

When she is raped by a fellow artist who she thought she could trust and respect, Artemesia dares to tell the truth–and to demand justice–in spite of the horrendous cost in Blood Water Paint (2018) by Joy McCullough.

Find it on Bookshop.

Blood Water Paint is McCullough’s debut novel. Artemisia narrates the story in sparse verse. Interspersed between these stories are prose sections in which Artemisia remembers the stories of Susanna and Judith as her mother told them to her as a child.

McCullough beautifully details Artemisia’s passion and commitment to her art. The story begins in Artemesia’s teen years and continues through her rape by Agostino Tassi and the subsequent trial. Her rage and frustration against the artistic establishment and her limited options as a woman in Rome are palpable throughout the story–especially during the trial when she is subjected first to a gynecological exam and later torture with thumbscrews to “prove” the truth of her testimony. The novel ends as Artemisia begins again returning to her painting in the wake of the trial and its outcome.

McCullough makes excellent use of free verse to highlight Artemisia’s talents and internalize her anger and fear after the rape. This format also allows the novel to provide a thorough telling while sticking to the broad strokes of Artemesia’s triumphs rather than focusing in on her suffering.

Blood Water Paint is an excellent verse novel and carefully researched historical fiction. Recommended.

Be sure to check out my exclusive interview with Joy about Blood Water Paint too!

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, One Great Lie by Deb Caletti, Da Vinci’s Tiger by L. M. Elliott, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez